Mark Chipperfield

Cider gardening for may 19
Going mainstream: Cider. Photo: Inga Nielsen

On the refectory table is a veritable Basque feast – bowls of fresh walnuts, salt cod omelets, aromatic sheep's cheese and an enormous T-bone steak that droops, Flintstones-like, over the sides of my plate.

A €40 ($55) ticket to one of northern Spain's famous sagardotegis (cider houses) not only buys the visitor a giant meal but unlimited access to the huge chestnut barrels of cider that line each ancient cavern.

But extracting your free Spanish sidra (which is bone dry and almost colourless) takes some skill. The traditional method requires the drinker "to throw" the sidra by opening a tap and then leaping backwards as the liquid arcs into the dining room; for the novice sidra thrower, special waiters are on hand to do the business.

Cider, fine food and theatricality haven't always been the most obvious of bedfellows, but the image of cider is undergoing something of a worldwide renaissance.

Once a drink enjoyed purely by maiden aunts, characters in Thomas Hardy novels and desperate teenagers, cider is enjoying a makeover worthy of The Block. In Australia, this movement was spearheaded by Tooheys and its quirky TV commercial for 5 Seeds cider, featuring two bearded girls delivering cider to the local pub on their bicycles – and the tag line "Not as sweet as you think".

Other brewers, including Matilda Bay, Little Creatures and James Squire, have quickly added cider to their more-established craft-beer portfolios.

While cider only accounts for 2 per cent of the total alcoholic drinks market in Australia, it has been in hyper-drive for several years – sales of traditional cider grew by 22 per cent last year, while demand for exotic imports, such the Swedish brands Rekorderlig and Kopparberg leapt by a staggering 300 per cent in the same period.

Industry analysts say the growing popularity of cider is being fuelled by younger female consumers looking for an interesting – and non-fattening – alternative to white wine, beer and pre-mixed drinks. Others see the revival of cider as an offshoot of the artisan food movement, as consumers search for authentic, boutique-style drinks.

Either way, the number of cider brands in Australia has jumped from 52 to 118 in the past two years and the range of imported bottled ciders is also growing exponentially – with ciders from England, France, Sweden and New Zealand leading the pack.

As yet, I haven't seen any Basque cider in my local bottle shop, but surely it won't be long before it graces our shelves. And if anyone is looking for an experienced sidra thrower, I know someone who can help. Waiter!

Rekorderlig Winter Cider

4 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Vimmerby, Sweden

If you ever scoffed a whole bag of jelly babies when you were a child, this well-upholstered Swedish bombshell will bring back some happy memories. The infusion of cinnamon and vanilla flavours creates a complex, multi-layered drink with attitude. The cider is rich and syrupy – and pours pale yellow in the glass. In the warmer months, serve with plenty of ice. Or if you're craving that whole Scandinavian mid-winter vibe, heat this little minx to near boiling and serve with thin slices of orange.

Coldstream Crushed Apple Cider

5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Yarra Valley, Victoria

Like pinot and chardonnay grapes, cider apples seem to thrive in the cooler climes of Victoria's Yarra Valley. This subtle, French farmhouse-style cider is pleasant and undemanding, with a crisp finish and a minimum amount of fizz. Unlike mass-produced ciders, this Victorian specimen is made using a traditional "rack and cloth" cider press. The cider is gluten-free and is made entirely from local apples. It sits nicely alongside the brewery's craft-beer portfolio. Serve over a generous bed of ice cubes.

Westons Old Rosie Cloudy Cider

7.3 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Herefordshire, Britain

Taking a sip of this traditional English "scrumpy" is like being thrown head first into an old apple barn. The aroma is fruity yet resinous. But the name is deceptive. Old Rosie is no simpering apple-cheeked lass, but a bare-knuckle fighter at the village fairground; sunburnt and rippling with muscles. Unfiltered or cloudy cider is more commonly associated with the west country, but this one hails from Herefordshire where it is matured in oak vats. Rotate gently to disperse any sediment at the base of the bottle.

Napoleone & Co Apple with Pear Cider

4 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Yarra Valley, Victoria

I first tasted Napoleone's refined, French-style ciders at the recent Beer SpecTAPular in Melbourne and was instantly captivated. Each of Napoleone's ciders is beautifully structured, crisp on the palate and oozing class. This apple and pear combo uses a number of locally sourced varieties, fermented with a Rhone Valley white wine yeast and made in small batches to ensure freshness. It pours a pale straw colour with a pinkish tinge, with the pear contribution very much in the background.

Matilda Bay Dirty Granny

5.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Port Melbourne, Victoria

Tooheys 5 Seeds has its bearded delivery girls, but Matilda Bay has Dirty Granny, the Mrs Brown of the cider world. These two brands have sexed-up the image of cider in Australia. Despite its name – a reference to the russet colour of the drink in question – this is an old-school English cider, with a coppery colour, wham-bam apple flavours and an aftertaste like wet hessian. Brewers have a knack of getting ciders just right. This is no exception.

+46 Apple Cider

4.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Herrljunga, Sweden

OK, it's true. I was sucked in by the cool, Nordic packaging of +46, but my shallowness was well rewarded. This is the best of the bunch: a delicate Swedish cider with a gorgeous, sweet-and-sour nose and a beautifully restrained palate. It pours like champagne but so pale it's almost invisible. Founded in 1911, Herrljunga is Sweden's oldest cidery and proudly uses 100 per cent local apples – unlike some of its Swedish counterparts, which now resort to bulk apple pulp.

Monteith's Crushed Pear Cider

4.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Greymouth, New Zealand

Pear cider (or perry) is a huge seller in Britain but has been slower to win over Aussie drinkers. This bright little import is a fine example of the cider-maker's art. Crushed pear might conjure up images of buttery desserts, but this Kiwi perry is surprisingly light and refreshing. The aroma has been compared to sauvignon blanc – lots of melon, grapefruit and citrus notes. Made with sun-ripened Nelson pears in the French style, this offering from Monteith's will hopefully change the way you look at pear cider.

Bulmers Original Cider

4.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Clonmel, Ireland (made under license in Australia)

With the tsunami of sexy new cider brands sweeping the country it's easy to overlook old stagers like Bulmers Original Cider. This is a really handsome, country-style cider in the Anglo-Irish tradition; and I love the 500-millilitre bottle with its gold-foil top. Bulmers Original pours dark in the glass but is light on the fizz. Expect gobfuls of fruit and a clean, surprisingly dry finish. Serve icy cold in a tall pint glass and settle in.

Kopparberg Pear Cider

4.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Kopparberg, Sweden

The Swedes have cornered the market in big-boned sweet ciders and this one is no exception. Pear cider doesn't get much sweeter than this – it's almost like drinking cough syrup. Put your nose into the glass and be assailed by the aroma of pear drops. Lighten the experience by pouring over a generous bed of ice cubes. This pear cider is not for the faint-hearted, but if you like a big sugary cider packed with full fruit flavour then this is the one for you.

Redoak Original Apple Cider

4.5 per cent ABV

Place of Origin: Sydney, NSW

David Hollyoak is one of Australia's most celebrated brewers, so it's no surprise that he also makes astonishingly good ciders. This one landed on my desk a few weeks ago and I was struck by its restraint and tartness. Apart from a rather unpleasant nose, this is a cider without apparent fault – refreshing, balanced and vibrant. It's also gluten-free. Serve chilled in a tall Pilsner glass with a plate of green olives on the side.